Zion National Park – The Narrows Top to Bottom

A little over a year ago, my best friend Amy and I hiked the Narrows from top to bottom. I was still recovering from my hip flexor injury and Matt had plans to go run R2R2R in the Grand Canyon with some friends. Not wanting to be left out of an adventure, but knowing I couldn’t run, I decided to create my own.

Amy and I are always perpetually planning trips to places, and we had been talking about backpacking Nolan’s Route in the Sawatch Range but then it snowed and got really cold, really fast. So I suggested we head out to the desert instead.

I had heard about Zion National Park but had never been. I had also heard about the Narrows from countless people and knew that if we were going to Zion that I had to get in the Narrows and see what it was all about. You can hike from the bottom up without a permit but I knew the experience from the top to bottom would be more Amy and I’s style. Luckily there were still a few permits left and I snagged them online.

It’s about an 8 hour drive from Summit County to Zion and we left as early as we could make it out the door. About 15 minutes before arriving at the entrance gate the sky turned black and the heavens opened up. It poured, and I mean poured. Like buckets of water coming out of the sky, in the desert. Which meant flash flooding was imminent!

We drove into the park from the eastern side which at about 5700 feet.  As we started descending into the canyon there were waterfalls everywhere! I wish I had taken pictures but I was driving and the roads were flooding and it was important to keep my hands on the wheel since my eyes were not so much on the road. It was stunningly beautiful, and definitely a treat since most people don’t get to see Zion in this kind of weather.

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Photo: http://climb-utah.com

As we lowered into the canyon the rain let up a little bit, but it didn’t stop. We went to the campground to find it completely full, no chance of finding a spot tonight. It was starting to get dark and we drove out of the park to get cell phone service so that we could search for nearby campgrounds. There were not very many. Defeated and exhausted from the long drive we remembered seeing a campground on the way in just before the East Entrance and drove back up to check it out.

We paid for our campsite, and set out in the dark to find it. It was still raining and starting to get cold. To make matters worse, we had my roommate’s tent which we had never set up before. We chose a site that was relatively sheltered by the trees and started to set up camp. The tent was like a puzzle with missing pieces, it took about an hour in the dark and cold rain to get it set up. When we finally got it we ate dinner and went to bed.

In the morning we woke up to find ice on the tent, it had got down to about 30 degrees while we were sleeping. Brrrr. I thought this was the desert?

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The first morning in campsite #1

We took the tent down, packed up the car and took off ready for the next adventure. Which happened to be driving to the campground and waiting in line. People had slept in line in order to get a spot and this was on a Monday! Once the rangers counted how many people were leaving they walked back through the line and we were literally like 2 cars behind the last person. Defeated we decided to just park the car in the lot and get moving on the shuttle into the canyon.

We decided on hiking Observation Point. It was a great hike, a super long climb and so beautiful. We climbed from the valley floor all the way up above the popular Angel’s Landing for a beautiful view of the canyon. We ate lunch at the top with several other people before descending back down to the valley.

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Amy on the trail to Observation Point
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View from the top of Observation Point

We asked a guy working at the gear shop where to camp and he told us about some free BLM camping just outside of town. He gave great directions and we found it. It was perfect. It was free and tucked away from the busy tourist world.

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Our awesome, free campsite!

The next day was our prep day so we went and picked up our permit, where the ranger proceeded to tell us that it was dangerous, water would be up to our necks and we would have to swim some sections. He was very abrasive, almost like he was trying to tasks us out of it. But we just said okay we’ll manage, got the permit and left.  We decided to head out for a short trip to the bottom of the canyon where we would be walking out just to see it. It was extremely crowded and lots of people were walking up from there in the water. We were both starting to get more excited about our trip the next day.

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Photo: Zion Adventure Company

We stopped at Zion Adventure Company on the way back to camp to pick up our gear. We both rented boots, neoprene socks, waterproof pants and walking sticks. They also called and booked our shuttle for us.

We headed back to camp to pack our bags and eat an early dinner. We would have to catch the shuttle at 5am in the main parking lot inside the park. We also noted that the season for the late shuttle had just ended so we would have about 10 hours to complete the hike and make it back to the last shuttle or we would have to walk all the way out of the canyon. We had no idea how long it would take us, but figured on about 9 hours as long as we kept moving and everything went as planned.

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Our Rough Plan

The ride to the top of the canyon was about an hour and half. We climbed up and out the east side of the park and continued on North Fork Road for what seemed like forever to Chamberlain’s Ranch. When we finally arrived it was very chilly, about 30 degrees and there was ice on the edges of the river. Up here the river was a small creek, only about 5-8 feet across. It was amazing to think that in just a few miles this would be the large river we saw the day before.

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The trail was very slight, non-existent in some places

We knew that we had a time crunch of sorts so we started out with a very fast run/hike through cow fields. At this point we did not have to hike in the river, so we kept our feet warmer by staying on the edge of the river on a very faint trail. A couple of times we thought we might have been off course, but as long as we could hear the river and continued to follow it we knew that we could not get lost.

Finally the canyon walls began. They started small, only about 20 feet or so above us and we began to walk through the water in sections but still stayed out of it when we could. As the sun rose the air temp got warmer but the river was still ice cold. We could see the damage and debris from the flood waters the day we drove in. The water eventually got to the point where it would be over our heads and must have been moving very fast. It was slightly terrifying but we knew the weather was supposed to be calm, even far north of here.

zion walls getting bigger

We saw very few people, for the most part we would walk alone for a mile or so before maybe seeing another small group or person and either passing them or they passing us. We were amazed at how beautiful it was and delighted in our solitude. It was mostly forested in this first few miles, nothing like a red desert but instead almost like home, just a forest with big trees and creek running through.

The walls started growing taller and taller the further we walked. There started to be sections that we had no choice but to walk in the water and because it was so murky, like chocolate milk because of the previous flash flood. We relied on our walking sticks to not lose our footing and were very happy that we had decided to rent them too.

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We started to walk by some of the backcountry camping sites and couldn’t help but think about how terrifying it would be to be camping when a flash flood struck. There is no cell phone service in the canyon and if a surprise storm pops up, there is no way out. Many people have died in the Narrows due to surprise flash floods. We were glad to be here in nice weather.

zion amy in the narrows

There were a few spots that were as deep as our hips, almost to our waists but there was certainly no spots as deep as our necks, and we did not have to swim. We both had lined our packs with plastic bags and were glad because they did get wet a couple of times but it was nothing like what the ranger had said.

zion narrows

We started seeing more people the bigger the walls were. We reached a section called Wall Street where the walls had to be 200 feet or taller. It was amazing. It was only maybe 50ft across and you had to walk through the river here. It was dark and chilly but absolutely stunning. This was exactly the kind of adventure I wanted, it was amazing! I wanted to stay here forever, but I knew we had to catch that last shuttle and after miles of walking through the muddy river, my feet were starting to get sore so we kept moving.

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zion amy and i

We reached the end with plenty of time to catch the shuttle and so we slowed down a bit, took more pictures and really enjoyed ourselves up until the end. When we finally made it back into town we took showers, dropped off our gear and went out to eat at a nice restaurant to celebrate. Definitely an adventure of a lifetime and one that neither of us will likely forget!

IF YOU GO:

Mileage: 16 miles from Chamberlains Ranch to the Temple of Sinawava. Although it is all downhill, you will have to walk through moving water, over river rocks and in some sections the water is up to your waist. This will slow you down. It took us just over 8 hours to complete this feat and we are both seasoned hikers and trail runners. We ran parts of the beginning to make sure we set ourselves up with plenty of time.

Difficulty: Advanced. The length and walking through cold water/rocks makes this trek a lot harder than other hikes.

What to Pack: Depending on the time of year you do this the weather can be drastically different. We went in September and it was very cold in the morning at Chamberlain’s ranch. We started out with jackets on, but we finished with t-shirts on. I highly recommend renting the Canyoneering boots and neoprene socks. Our feet still were cold but much less so then if we had been wearing trail runners. The waterproof pants were nice, but we definitely could have done it without them. And a walking stick or poles were literally a life saver.

What we brought:

  • 3 liters of water
  • plenty of snacks and a PB+J for lunch
  • light jacket for the morning
  • wool t-shirt
  • canyoneering boots
  • neoprene socks
  • waterproof pants
  • walking stick
  • phones (mine has a waterproof case) for taking photos
  • extra layers
  • first aid kit
  • hat
  • sunglasses
  • permit

Other important info: You must have a permit to hike from the top to bottom. You can reserve this online for a small fee, and you must pick it up the day before your hike because the backcountry office is not open before the shuttle leaves.

If there is a flash flood watch or warning the Narrows will be closed, no exceptions.

If you are going to Zion during peak season like we did, it’s a good idea to reserve your shuttle and gear ahead of time to make sure they still have it available. There are many places that rent gear and a decent amount of shuttles but being prepared always helps! Also remember to check the Zion Shuttle times, we didn’t realize until the ranger at the backcountry office told us that we would only have 10 hours to catch the last shuttle. The last thing you want is to turn your 16 mile hike into a 30 mile hike because you have to hike out of the canyon too.

zion playing with light